As we learn growing up, sometimes things that are good for you don’t necessarily thrill in the moment. Last Saturday’s trade of Gregory Soto to the Philadelphia Phillies may feel like the equivalent of the Detroit Tigers making sure to eat their broccoli. We may have hoped for a shiny new prospect in return for Soto, but Scott Harris filled two needs with this deal, and managed to obtain relatively young players with significant upside in the process.
Riley Greene and Austin Meadows are a quality pair of outfielders, but the third outfield position was a big question mark. Versatile outfielder Matt Vierling is a good addition who can tie the whole outfield group together and provide added value off the bench.
Kerry Carpenter’s massive breakout campaign in 2022 makes him the presumptive starter for 2023, but he’s still a bit unproven against major league pitching and a subpar defender. His likely competition for playing time is Akil Baddoo, who is a little younger but has just as much to prove offensively. As both hit left-handed and have had struggles with same-sided pitching, a right-handed hitting outfielder who could play a credible right field was a very specific need that Scott Harris had to address. The addition of Vierling gives A.J. Hinch that right-handed hitting option and a small defensive upgrade on days when Austin Meadows or Kerry Carpenter are in the designated hitter slot.
Vierling isn’t the kind of proven plug-and-play option we would’ve desired, but he does fit this niche extremely well. He’s also young with some untapped power and speed, and doesn’t chase out of the strike zone too much. The Tigers needed help, and there’s just far more to like in dealing for a player like Vierling than there would be to signing a decent veteran with no likely future on the team to a one year deal, for example.
In short, if you’re not actually willing to spend or trade for a really good player who is part of the future, this is the type of player a team should pursue.
Vierling carries a strong toolkit
With all four of the Tigers’ best outfield options being left-handed hitters, Scott Harris really needed someone who can mash lefties, play everywhere, and provide speed off the bench. Just in that role alone, Vierling is pretty close to perfect for the Tigers’ roster. The fact that there is still a fair amount of breakout potential here as well just puts the acquisition over the top for the Tigers’ front office.
The 26-year-old is one of the faster players in baseball, checking in at 20th overall in sprint speed. While bad jumps hinder his overall defensive value, he makes up for it with that speed and is pretty close to an average corner outfielder who can play center field without much issue. He also averages 89.5 mph velocity on his throws, making him a comfortable fit in right field, or even at third base, as Scott Harris and AJ Hinch have suggested.
Vierling also packs really good raw power. He was 35th overall among qualified hitters in average exit velocity off the bat, posting a 91.2 mph average. So he doesn’t just hit the ball hard, he does so consistently. His max exit velocity was 112.1 mph, putting him well into the plus raw power category. He’s on a par with power hitters like Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman, and Rhys Hopkins, not to mention Riley Greene and Javier Báez.
In short, Vierling brings a lot of athletic ability to the table. There aren’t so many players that combine raw power, speed, and a strong arm the way that Vierling does. He has his flaws at the plate, but it’s always worth emphasizing that a player like Vierling doesn’t have to improve his hitting as much as a player without those force multipliers to be an average or slightly better run producer.
Obviously, if he’d put the whole package together already, the Phillies wouldn’t be dealing him for relief help, but Harris got the Tigers a good deal of potential here. He’s more than just a player already well suited to perform in the limited platoon roles projected for him at the major league level.
The walks were a bit on low side in Vierling’s 357 major league plate appearances in 2022, but the underlying chase rate was a little better than average. He fits the Harris mantra of controlling the strike zone pretty well. Vierling struck out just 19.6 percent of the time in 2022, which is quite good and fits with his minor league track record. It’s also worth noting that he saw 87 more plate appearances against right-handers than lefties, so it’s not as though he was protected by a strict platoon. He didn’t show particularly large splits in that regard either, striking out 21 percent of the time against right-handed pitching, still a little better than league average.
So, why did this low key specimen, who routinely mashes the baseball, runs like a gazelle, and puts the ball in play consistently, post an 81 wRC+?
First, take a look at the good stuff.
The launch issue
As you might expect, Vierling just didn’t pull the ball in the air much in 2022. Hitting the ball hard consistently just doesn’t pay the same dividends when your fly balls are dying in center and right-center field, and most of your hits are coming on hard ground balls and line drives. In fairness, Vierling was probably a least somewhat unlucky, with a .285 actual wOBA compared to a .327 expected wOBA, per Statcast. Still he’s got to get to his power more to be anything more than a part-time player and it’s probably not going to come by backspinning fly balls to right-center field, although we can hope.
Based on his fly ball spray chart below, shown here overlaid over Comerica Park’s old and soon to be shortened dimensions, he’s got some work to do. On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with going the opposite way. He’s already got some balls to right-center and right field that may be more likely to get out of the park in Detroit with the center field fence moving in 10 feet and the walls lowered from the flagpole to the right field corner. He has the speed to exploit the deep gaps as well But overall, he hits too many of his fly balls routinely to center and right field and doesn’t cash in as many for homers as his ability to hit the baseball hard consistently says he could.
The park changes are certainly better for him, but real gains in production are probably going to have to come from his swing and/or approach instead.
On the plus side, Vierling does cover the outside of the plate pretty well, and from an upright stance and low hands in his setup, can handle high fastballs, typically spraying line drives and hard grounders to the opposite field and back up the middle with authority. That gives A.J. Hinch an option to match him up even against right-handers who throw a lot of fastballs at the top of the zone. The Tigers have plenty of low ball hitters, so there’s a little extra flexibility built in by adding Vierling to the lineup mix.
What he doesn’t do enough, is stay back on inside pitches and drive them up the gaps and in the air to the pull field. His open stance and a little loop in his hand path as he loads tends to see his hands working away from him through the ball rather than staying compact and connected to pull inside pitches. The Phillies have had some success with their young hitters in recent years, so we probably shouldn’t expect too much more production. We’ll be interested in the approach the Detroit Tigers new hitting coaches take with him, but most likely Vierling will remain a quality contact hitter whose production remains just a little light in the power department for full-time work.
The Tigers made a good deal here
Once the Gregory Soto trade was announced, the Phillies found themselves getting a little pushback along with their fair share of praise as well. In strict WAR terms, the Tigers clearly crushed this deal. There’s a good likelihood that Matt Vierling alone will provide as much value as Soto does before either reach free agency, even considering the potential high leverage scenarios the big southpaw will be faced with in a tough NL East division. And Vierling has plenty of believers heading into his age 26 season. There’s still a reasonable chance the Tigers land a quality starting outfielder here.
Overall though, this seems like a win on both sides. Vierling and Nick Maton are both interesting, athletic players with a lot of defensive versatility and speed. They suit the Tigers needs and retain the upside of decent young post-prospects who could still breakout somewhat. Harris weighed the risks with Gregory Soto and decide to pass those on to the Phillies in return for stabilizing his position player group with players with a lot of team control.
However, neither has done enough to fit into a strong Philadelphia Phillies everyday lineup and so both were pretty expendable. Dealing them for relief help is a sound move when you’re in position to contend in October. In the process, Dave Dombrowski kept his small collection of good prospects, and if Soto is able to recapture his control more consistently, adds one of the tougher left-handers in baseball to an already good bullpen.
Vierling is a pretty nice addition for the Tigers. His current path has him looking a bit like Avisail Garcia with more speed and better defense. That will do just fine, but if he can translate that hard contact into a little more power production, this deal will look like an absolute steal in short order.